Warning over online fitness workouts during Coronavirus pandemic

Australians signing up to online exercise programs to keep fit during coronavirus lockdown are being warned “one size fits all” training could be doing more harm than good.

From popular Facebook fitness challenges, to celebrities sharing their workouts on apps like Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, there’s new pressure to stay fit and look the part. 

Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA) says that while maintaining physical activity to support immune and mental health is even more important in troubling times, exercise needs to be done in the “right way” for each individual otherwise serious injury and health complications can result.

ESSA spokesperson and Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Rachael Kent said she had noticed a surge in sign-ups to online exercise programs and more posts from social media “influencers” during the pandemic.

“It seemed great to have free, cheap or easily available online exercise content while much of Australia faced mandatory self-isolation, but this content can have consequences if the people using it have health complications or are at risk of injury,” said Ms Kent.

As part of Exercise Right Week (25-31 May), ESSA is encouraging people to “exercise right” for who they are and to consider any pre-existing health conditions. They can do this by finding the right professional to suit their unique needs, rather than relying on their electronic devices for inspiration. 

The latest ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (April) has confirmed many people are less fit and unhealthier than before the pandemic struck, with 58% spending more time in front of their tv, computer, phone or other device – while 19% were having difficulty maintaining a healthy lifestyle.   

So, there’s also now a rush to sign-up to online workouts without being properly assessed by an Exercise Physiologist or Exercise Scientist.

“People are online a whole lot more – almost 60% more – some have lost their jobs or are on lower incomes so they can’t then afford one-on-one exercise sessions,” said Ms Kent.

“They’re hoping online content will have the same result as seeing a qualified professional. People will trust anybody with a large online following when it comes to exercise, they don’t look at someone’s qualifications or background.”

ESSA advised people to consider the following when viewing online content:
  • Everyone is different: bodies, movement capacity and strength levels vary dramatically. Applying one program to a vast majority of people is when injuries start to occur.
  • Exercise Physiologists & Exercise Scientists will tailor exercise to suit individuals: they will specifically guide them through exercise programs, taking into account chronic illness and injury.
  • Consider your mental health: if you feel motivated and take physical action, keep following the person or exercise program with care. But if you are following the person or program and feeling you are not enough, or feel like you are failing, depressed or jealous, think twice about it.
  • Do you have Insta-fitness star envy? Think carefully about why you’re signing up to a program. If it’s because you want to look like the person delivering the program, then this is unrealistic and likely to lead to problems as you chase an unreachable goal.

“Generalised training programs can harm a person’s health when any background issues are not considered. As Exercise Physiologists, we tailor programs to suit individuals and any pre-existing health conditions,” said Ms Kent.

“Eighty per cent of people are going to have an episode of back pain in their life. It takes one person to have a back injury that might take a year to rehab – they are essentially the people that we want to stop going on these crash courses.”

One of Ms Kent’s patients, Gemma Bradley, fell into this category, sustaining serious injury after signing up to the program of an international fitness champion. The “influencer” had an Instagram following of 500k+ people.

Gemma, 36, found the program via Facebook and after a “phone screening” launched into up to six training sessions a week. She had not been properly assessed by an instructor as it was later found she had scoliosis.

“Gemma was asked to do deadlifts and increase the weight. She ended up hurting herself so badly she herniated a disc in her lumbar spine where she ended up seeing a spinal surgeon who referred her to me,” said Ms Kent.

“Gemma couldn’t bend over, lift the washing basket or even get out of bed and feared never running again.  Despite being injured there was no follow up from the trainer.”

After two years of extensive rehabilitative treatment with Ms Kent, Gemma is now able to live a normal life – and run, ski and surf – but she is still battling fear avoidance behaviours, worried she will reinjure herself. 

“Not everyone is going to get injured from these programs, for some there is a very positive impact,” said Ms Kent.

“But for people who are injured or have a chronic health condition and don’t completely understand the implications, they are being pushed too hard to sign up with potentially disastrous results.”

In Australia, people with a GP referral are entitled to a Medicare rebate of $53.80 per session for five exercise physiology sessions, and most health insurance covers exercise physiology. Telehealth sessions are also available. 

“We only have one body. Seeing an appropriately qualified exercise professional is an investment, not an expense,” said Ms Kent.

“Get a program tailored to your body, your condition, your training history. People need to view their health in positive manner – it’s not about forcing people to do a hard program online; you get better results and better compliance to a program seeing us.”

“Movement is medicine.”


For more information:
Zoe Bickerstaffe
ESSA Marketing & Communications Manager
E: [email protected] 
P: 07 3171 3335